Do External Incentives Degrade Intrinsically Worthwhile Activities?

There are many things that are worth doing on their own account, and not because of the consequences they produce. However, in a society in which there is a desire for meaningful work there is a temptation to try to take those intrinsically valuable pursuits and translate them into career opportunities. For example, someone who is drawn to the intrinsically valuable pursuit of journalism may want to try to turn journalism into a career. If this person could not cut it as a journalist they would still pursue the practise of journalistic writing on their own time, as this activity is its own reward and it does not need an external monetary, or non-monetary incentive, to draw people towards its practise. This temptation to turn intrinsically worthwhile activities, which we are willing to do without external incentives, into a career is problematic, because in many cases these external incentives will degrade the value of the activity itself. This is not to suggest that no one should try to turn such activities into a career, but rather that the value of the activity will be lessened once the activity has been translated into a career.

The danger in the transformation of an intrinsically valuable practise that one is drawn to into a career is that the external incentives, monetary or non-monetary, may crowd out the values that the practise realizes. Let us consider the person who pursues a journalistic career because of an appreciation for the intrinsic value of journalism. This person does not worry about deadlines, and is a perfectionist because she wants to ensure that her works fully realize all the excellences of journalistic practise. She may be extolling the virtues of the ideal journalist, but as a careerist she fails because she is not attentive to the fact that in a job you are being paid not to fully realize the excellence of a practise, but meet particular deadlines and produce particular “deliverables.” Consequently, it seems, that at least in some cases, pursuing an intrinsically worthwhile activity as a career will require one to compromise the integrity of the practise in favour of imperatives that bear little connection to the excellences of the practise itself.

This example helps to clarify why the careerization of activities degrades their value. Once an activity has been made into a career the person engaging in the activity cannot focus on fully developing the excellences of the practise but must produce particular outputs at particular time. This is precisely why the demand that academics produce a particular amount of research over every year is so antithetical to the excellences of the activities of the life of the mind and research. If one is worried about having to produce so many academic articles every year, one will likely not be able to fully devote oneself to ensuring that the articles are of excellent quality. Often producing articles will merely be a process of meeting deadlines rather than ensuring that one’s research fully realizes the excellences inherent in research.

In this way those who have an opportunity to pursue an intrinsically valuable activity that they are drawn to as a career are faced with a daunting choice. On one hand, they are given an opportunity to earn an income pursuing something that is valuable and that they would engage in without external incentives. Surely, this is a great opportunity. But on the other hand, they may have the sense that once this activity becomes a career they will not be able to fully devote themselves to realizing the excellence inherent in that activity. Furthermore, it is not clear to me whether it is better to pursue a compromised version of an intrinsically worthwhile activity that is not attentive to the excellence inherent in that activity, or to pursue a career that may not involve an intrinsically valuable activity, but that does not involve the degradation of an intrinsically valuable activity.

Some Thoughts on Secularism and the Public Sphere

Recently, it came to the fore that the Parti Quebecois were planning to try to prohibit civil servants from wearing religious symbols or religious headgear through the planned implementation of a “Charter of Quebec Values.” Much of the analysis of this Charter has focused on the fact that the PQ seems to be trying to capitalize on the xenophobia present in Rural Quebec.  However, this Charter forces us once again to reconsider the meaning of secularism and what interpretation of secularism is best, as defenders of the Charter of Quebec Values” have noted that this Charter is not an attack on any particular religious group, but rather a means of uniting Quebec much in the same way that Bill 101 helped to unite Quebec and this is very tied to the interpretation of secularism known as `Laicite`. `Laicite` is the idea that the private sphere is the sphere where religion should play its role, while in the public sphere all citizens should appear as equals devoid of any visible religious or cultural affiliation. In this way, `Laicite` privatizes difference in order to ensure that the state is free from religious influence. Since the Quiet Revolution in the 60’s in Quebec, it has been the dominant interpretation of what secularism means in Quebec.

It should be noted that I am not suggesting that this bill was not an attempt to marginalize particular religious groups from working in the public sphere, but rather that even if the Charter is being used in this way, there is a still an interpretation at its foundation that is worth considering,.

While `Laicite` has been a dominant model of Secularism in Europe and North America, it is not the dominant model, and in the Anglo- American world the more dominant model of secularism has been the idea that secularism does not require the privatizing of difference, but rather the diversifying of public space. Let’s call this the “Anglo- American Model.” On this interpretation, instead of preventing all public employees from bearing religious symbols we would allow them to wear any religious articles that they wanted to provided that these do not endanger other’s rights. The idea is that rather than banning all religious symbols from the public sphere, we should admit all religious symbols into the public sphere. This is still an interpretation of secularism as it stands in opposition to the formation of a State Religion.

Both models of secularism have difficulties, and I would like to take a moment to clarify them before making an argument in favour of either. On one hand, Laicite is problematic because by banning religious symbols we will certainly alienate many religious people whose political beliefs are intertwined with their religious beliefs. Now if a significant minority of people are religious and are alienated from the public sphere they will be less active in formal politics and this will likely mean their beliefs and interests will not be adequately taken into account in the formation of the public interest.  Somewhat ironically, while `Laicite` tries to create solidarity, it can have the negative effect of actually pitting certain groups against the public sphere and failing to be properly inclusive.  On the other hand, the “Anglo-American Model” is certainly inclusive enough, but it is problematic in that it seems difficult to figure out what the public interest is when all citizens come in bearing marks of distinct religions and cultures.  When there are conflicts between the values of the majority culture, and a religious minority whose value ought to take precedence? The “Anglo-American Model” of secularism on its own provides us with no answer to this question. In this way `Laicite` give us substantive values of citizen equality and solidarity, but fails to be inclusive, while the Anglo-American model is extremely inclusive, but makes it difficult to adjudicate what the common interest is, by bringing all of the fractious differences into the public sphere.  

It seems to me, that with a qualification, the Anglo – American model is superior to the `Laicite` model. The qualification is that it is understood that we do not value diversity in itself, but rather respect all equal citizen’s right to bear religious symbols and clothing in the public sphere. In this way the foundation of including religious symbols in the public sphere is not because diversity is inherently positive but respect for the equality of all citizens. This also gives the state and its citizens a barometer to adjudicate what is in the common interest and what is not, and what values ought to take precedence when conflicts occur. This solution certainly has its own problems, but it provides a substantial barometer as to what is in the common interest, and embodies an inclusive spirit that encourages all to see themselves as full citizens.





Elitism and Music

Tyler Cornwall`s life revolved around his love of Techno. He spent most of his free time listening to Techno and could easily classify any Techno track within its appropriate subgenre including Post Early 2000s Berlin Minimal Housey Techno. Whenever he encountered people whose music taste revolved around what they heard on the radio he would feel superior as he had done the work to dig through all sorts of music to discover the most beautiful music in the world, Techno.  Consequently, in Tyler`s daily life he took every opportunity he could to display the beauty of Techno and would try to illuminate and re-educate those who did not see its shining beauty.  

Kyle Cassian had the same characteristics as Tyler, except in his case his love was for Extreme Metal, rather than Techno.  On one occasion Kyle had even skipped work in order to respond to a poster on an internet discussion board who had disparaged extreme metal, as something that lacked musical ability and all sounded the same. With his post Kyle had fulfilled his raison dètre as he had overwhelmed the naysayer with a post revealing the distinction between different genres of Extreme Metal, and explained why Extreme Metal takes a great degree of talent to perform. There was no way this naysayer would ever go around badmouthing Extreme Metal again.

By happenstance Tyler and Kyle ended up posting on the same internet discussion board. Kyle had bad mouthed Techno and referred to it as something `that any talentless idiot with a decent computer could make.“ This drew Tyler`s immediate attention and soon after he responded to Kyle. Tyler`s response clarified the history of Techno and how much talent was required to take simple, seemingly dull, rhythms and make something infectious with them.  Furthermore, he posted several examples of what he considered to be quality Techno. This did not convince Kyle however. In fact Kyle was offended by the fact that somebody could take Techno so seriously. Extreme Metal was a truly majestic art form, but Techno was trite and any person with the least sense of the true meaning of what good music was, could not consider Techno to be good.  

Soon after this exchange of posts occurred two other people posted additional responses to Kyle and Tyler. The first of these, Harvey Johnston, was upset with the fact that these two people were trying to prove that a particular genre was good. His response argued that there no way to distinguish between good music and bad music, and that music was merely a matter of preference. For Harvey, just as some people like Olives and others do not, some people will like Techno and others won`t.                                   

 However, the other poster, Anthony Martin, took a different tact. He saw the great passion for the beauty of music that both Kyle and Tyler had, and because he shared that passion for beauty, he wanted to expose them to his favourite forms of music, Classical and Jazz. He did not try to illuminate their minds or convert them to being avid listeners of Jazz and Classical; he merely suggested some artists they might like given Tyler`s love for Techno and Kyle`s love of Extreme Metal.  In this way Anthony just wanted to share the love that he had developed. While Anthony did think that his music taste was more elevated than Tyler`s or Kyle`s, and this elevation signified his ability to grasp a more nuanced conception of beauty, he was motivated by a simple desire to spread his love of music.  He merely wanted to encourage the growth of a love in others that had enriched his own life.

The Fetishization of Quantification

The widespread use of programs like “Microsoft Project” indicates the degree to which the culture of advanced industrialized nations fetishizes quantification. In such nations as soon as something is quantified it becomes more reliable as a guide to judgment even if the process of quantification is absurd or arbitrary. For example, to return the example of “Microsoft Project,” it seems highly implausible to say that one can give an accurate percentage estimate of how far one has completed a particular task, or the percentage of Project A that are covered by Tasks X and Y. The use of these tools for planning is completely understandable as they provide a structure that enables people to more easily organize tasks, but the fact that these tools  are taken so seriously, and no one seems to question whether the quantification that is required by “Microsoft Project” can be performed in a non-arbitrary way reveals the fetishization of quantification. It begins to seem that as long as we quantify something, it is more reliable and less arbitrary than something that has not been quantified, no matter how absurd or arbitrary the process of quantification is.  

The question then arises as to why we have this attitude? One plausible explanation is that numbers taken in abstraction to how they have been gathered seem much more reliable than personal judgment. For example two bags of flour may seem equally heavy to me after I have lifted each one, but when I weigh them I realize that one is indeed far heavier than the other.  The problem with this attitude is that while there are certainly places where quantification is beneficial, quantification in and of itself does not separate us from personal judgment. Rather quantification throws personal judgment one step back into the background.  For example, when judging whether one can quantify something we always have to ask if we can reliably and non-arbitrarily translate this thing into a numeric value without missing something important about what is trying to be measured.  So even when quantification is prudent and sensible, quantification requires judgment, just as all human activities require personal judgment. So by quantifying something we do not necessarily increase our objectivity, or the reliability of the information that is being conveyed. 

It may be obvious to say that a quantified measurement involves as much judgment as a non-quantified judgment, but most people will react much more positively to something that is quantified, than something that is apparently a personal judgment of an individual, despite the fact that all quantification involves judgment, while being one step removed from that judgment. This indicates that many have a bias towards the quantified,   because it seems somehow more reliable than what is not quantified.  Consequently we seem to fetishize quantification as we seem to think that quantifying something somehow makes it more reliable while being unable to explain how it make something more reliable or non-arbitrary. Therefore, the problem with the fetishization of quantification is that it blinds us to the importance of the centrality of judgment to human life and if we are blinded to this facet of human life we will never understand ourselves or others, we will merely know facts. Of course we will be making judgments, but we will be doing so without a reflective consciousness of the fact that we are making such judgments.


The Relationship Between Leisure and Entertainment

When one asks the question of what place entertainment should have in our lives most inhabitants of industrialized nations would respond that it is perfectly legitimate to spend one’s leisure time being entertained. In this blog, I would like to show the problematic nature of the aforementioned opinion.

Entertainment at its very core seems to be something that must be enjoyed through immediate consumption, rather than something that has durability and requires time to fully appreciate. For example, the quintessential entertainment activity might be watching a sitcom. At the time, the sitcom is pleasant, but it does not require reflective analysis, or a rich set of capabilities to appreciate. It is something that is immediately consumed. Just like eating a chocolate bar, we immediately consume a sitcom and enjoy that moment. Furthermore, entertainment does not teach us anything or stick with us; it provides us with a short pleasant experience, and once the experience is over we move on with our lives as though nothing has happened. When we watch a sitcom, we do not think that this episode really counts in the overall structure of our lives. It is a mere pleasurable experience with no further meaning attached. Entertainment is thus quite fairly characterized as a pleasant distraction.

Now it should be noted that I am not suggesting that sitcoms are inherently incapable of sticking with us and engaging reflective analysis. Part of what makes entertainment what it is, is the subject matter, but, the other side of what makes entertainment what it is, is how it can be appreciated, and how it tends to be appreciated within a particular context. In principle, there may be sitcoms that can engage reflective analysis and stick with us, but very few of us appreciate them in this way, and they can be enjoyed as merely pleasant experiences.

It is problematic to say that it is legitimate to spend one’s leisure time being entertained, because while entertainment is certainly a valid practise, if being entertained is the sole, or primary, purpose of our leisure time it will distract us from being reflective, and of discerning what kind of life we truly want to live. Entertainment temporarily abates the answering of difficult questions, and this is both its vice and its virtue. It is its virtue in that it allows us to temporarily get away from our problems and difficulties and face them anew. It is its vice because it is very easy to become addicted and overly preoccupied with being entertained, such that answering the question of how one ought to live ceases to be interesting and desirable.  It seems to me that one of the most admirable qualities of humans is that they have the capability to reflect on what kind of life is the best and most admirable. If we are overly focused on entertaining ourselves our capability for reflection atrophies and we are left living a life where we work so that we can be entertained during our leisure time. This sort of life does not seem that admirable and while it is certainly not the worst, the focus on entertainment within our culture threatens to destroy some of our most admirable capacities. Consequently, while there is nothing wrong with spending some of our leisure time being entertained, we should be ever vigilant that we do not let these pleasant distractions, distract us from other more important matters, such as answering the question of how it is best to live.




Critiquing Political Rhetoric: “Big Government”

The term “Big Government” is often used by the American Right to suggest that anyone who is for “Big Government” is necessarily opposed to individual freedom and individual rights. This use of the concept of “Big Government” is harmful to political dialogue because it covers over the actual disagreements between those who endorse “Big Government” and those who oppose it.

I will begin by noting that “Big Government” simply refers to a state that intervenes to a large degree in society. Now do those who favour “Big Government” actually oppose individual freedom and individual rights? It seems to me that in fact there is no inherent tension between being a supporter of individual freedom and individual rights, and “Big Government.” To explain why this is the case I will examine two possible arguments for why” Big Government” might be opposed to individual rights, and argue that neither of these establish a necessary tension between “Big Government” and individual rights and freedom.

Firstly, one critique of” Big Government” notes that because “Big Government” requires greater taxation than smaller government, supporters of “Big Government” must be opposed to individual rights, because greater taxation necessarily violates a strong right to private property. Let us call this the proprietarian critique of “Big Government.” The problem is this critique of “Big Government” depends on a contentious conception of individual rights in which one cannot be coerced to monetarily support societal imperatives without fundamentally having one’s property rights violated. However, this conception of individual rights is not something that all reasonable people can be expected to hold, and thus it is completely reasonable for someone to believe that individuals have a weaker right to property that is not sullied by high levels of  taxation. The disagreement between the proprietarian critic of” Big Government” and the supporter of  “Big Government” is not that one is for individual rights and the other is not, but rather that they hold differing conceptions of individual rights, and how strong one’s right to property ought to be. 

Secondly, another critique of “Big Government” is the idea that as government becomes larger and intervenes more in people’s lives it will be more likely to endanger their rights.  Let us call this the slippery slope critique of Big Government. This critique however does not show that proponents of” Big Government” are unconcerned with individual rights and freedom, because someone can perfectly consistently recognize this danger, and say that the benefits of “Big Government” are worth it, despite the dangers. Likewise such a proponent of “Big Government” can also support such devices as the rule of law, separation of powers, and third party watchdogs to ensure that the dangers that “Big Government” poses do not erode its citizen’s liberties. It is an empirical question whether “Big Government” actually does endanger the rights of people and history does not seem to suggest that “Big Government” tends to leads to the dissolution of individual rights and freedom within constitutional liberal democratic states. Most Western European States that are characterized by “Big Government” have not experienced much erasure of individual rights and freedom, despite the expansiveness of the initiatives that the state undertakes.

Consequently, there does not seem to be any tension between supporting “Big Government,” on one hand and supporting individual rights and freedom on the other. Many people in both America, and Europe are strong supporters of individual rights and freedom, and supporters of “Big Government.” The position that these people hold is not paradoxical rather it results from disagreements about the nature of individual rights, how dangerous “Big Government” actually is to individual rights, and whether there are constitutional devices that can prevent a strong state from endangering the freedom and rights of its citizens. Consequently, when the American Right use the term “Big Government” to suggest that those that favour a more interventionist state are opposed to individual freedom, they are falling to the level of mere polemic and not actually talking about the actual disagreements they have with proponents of “Big Government.”

Now, let it be known I am not a blind partisan of “Big Government.” The society that “Big Government” creates is problematic in many ways, but “Big Government” has no necessary opposition to individual rights and freedom, and thus opposing it, on the grounds that it is necessarily corrosive of individual rights and freedom is dubious at best.